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Understanding the Story Need is the gift you give your hero (+ the 4 steps to identify it) 

 November 6, 2022

By  Sue Brown-Moore

In my previous article on Story Void, we learned:

  • what a character's Void is,
  • why it's so important to telling a powerful story of transformation,
  • and how the Emotional Gap Funnel can help us set our stories up for success.

Today, we'll focus on level 2 of the Emotional Gap Funnel and how to zero in on the Story Needs that propel our characters through their growth journeys.

The Emotional Gap Funnel - Story Need level 2

In this article, I'll continue my personal tale of young Sue (with a Void of autonomy) and demonstrate how to know which Story Need to choose by sharing an example from my own life. Then, I'll tell you the exact 4 steps to follow to pinpoint your hero's specific Story Need. 

Let's revisit Story Need

Recap: What is the Story Need?

While Void is the basic emotional human experience a person is missing at a given point in their life—in my previous example, this is autonomyNeed is the one thing they must recognize or accept right now to (at least partially) fill that hole. 

The ultimate goal of a positive transformation story arc is to show the hero finding happiness, so we're looking for a specific emotional (or psychological) path to that happier place. 

Let's take another look at the Emotional Gap Funnel and focus on how Story Need is different from Story Void.

The Emotional Gap Funnel - Story Need (the one thing they must recognize or accept)

We, as humans, can have more than one Void at any given time. In my previous example (where I shared that cheesy youngster photo of myself), I spotlighted my Void of autonomy. But my young self needed more than just the freedom to make my own choices. I also seriously lacked self-worth and self-assurance. I was sabotaging my own happiness by believing that I wasn't worthy of success.

And while I've managed to fill most of those three Voids throughout my adult life—especially autonomy—I still sometimes struggle with them. Why am I telling you all this? How is it relevant to what your character Needs in their story?

Focusing on the single most important Void in your character's life during the timeframe of their story will simplify the storytelling decisions you need to make to set up their transformation arc.

Examples of Void: circles containing autonomy (biggest), self-worth (smaller), and confidence (smaller)

In my case, the lack of self-worth and self-assurance were certainly factors in my struggle to find happiness, but my inability to make my own choices was what frustrated me the most. Even if I suddenly started believing in myself and chasing lofty goals, I still would have felt held back by my lack of personal freedom. 

So autonomy would be my strongest Void during this phase of my life, which is why it's ideal to use as my Story Void

Tip #1We can still harness the power of those secondary Voids by wrapping them into our character's Story Needs. (See Tip #2 below.)

A personal example of Story Need

A personal example of Story Need from Story Void

For young Sue, lack of autonomy caused a general need for personal control over my choices. But how would that translate into a specific Need we can build a story around?

If I were telling a story about myself as a young adult dealing with Imposter Syndrome, I might choose to spotlight my freshman year in high school when I was invited to be the flute soloist for a regional choir exposition. 

hands playing a flute

While I craved the opportunity to prove that I was a good flutist, I was terrified at the idea of performing in front of not just an audience, but the best singers in our region, most of whom were older and, (I assumed) more musically talented than I was.

I feared making mistakes and embarrassing myself in front of people who were "better" than me. I also feared performing poorly enough to earn a reputation as a "bad" soloist and never get invited to opportunities like that again. My surface fears were based in Imposter Syndrome, but my root fear was of sabotaging my future.

I knew that if I wanted to get into Juilliard as a flutist (my career goal at the time), I had to believe that I was capable of not just performing on a big stage, but doing it with polish and professionalism. I thought I needed to prove that I was good enough to be a professional flute player. I wanted to prove this to myself because it would have given me a temporary feeling of accomplishment, which is a small step toward personal control

But my true Need was to believe in myself, that I had the strength of spirit and the dogged determination to forge my own path, whatever that may be. Young Sue's journey through her on-page story will teach her that success must come from belief in herself, not a series of one-off perfect performances. While practice and performance build confidence, they are not the seed of success. And being a professional flute player was not my only (or even best) path to autonomy happiness.  

Recognizing or accepting what emotional path forward your hero needs to take is a lovely little gift from you (the storyteller) to them (the character of your heart).  They can't be happy until they realize what is holding them back, so their Story Need empowers them to grow and change for the better.

Anytime you worry about being too harsh on your characters, ask yourself what they need to believe or realize about themself. As long as the story sets them up to follow that path, their on-page pain and suffering will be worth experiencing your own discomfort as you write it.

Story Needs vs Wants ("false Needs")

How Needs vs. Wants ("false" Needs) can add depth to a story

Just like with Surface Fears and Root Fears, there are different types of Needs in a story (like Jake Sully's Early and Late-Story Needs). And sometimes we mistake a Want for a Need.

Quick note: It's okay if your character has two Needs in a single story, especially if they're an internal/external pairing. Or if your hero grows so much between the start and end of their story that they can pursue two distinct Needs during their story's transformation arc, like Jake Sully in the Avatar example from my Romancing the Grand Gesture training.

As storytellers, this is a powerful tool, because we can illustrate a character's transformation by showing them recognize that what they thought they needed is not what will actually make them truly happy.

The Emotional Gap Funnel - Story Need (the one thing they must recognize or accept)

This Want vs. Need struggle is both simple to understand and relatable for readers to empathize with.

In the early high school years of my life, my Void of autonomy often manifested as a yearning to believe I could have a career that would give me the freedom of choice I craved. I wanted choices and possibilities that came from my passions and desires (not the ones that were traditionally acceptable for a woman in the Deep South to pursue), and acceptance to Juilliard represented the pinnacle of success as a young musician. 

But! I didn't need to be accepted to Juilliard—I wanted it. I Needed to believe I had the strength to blaze my own path (self-assurance).

Emotional Story Diversity

Why Void and Need can occupy different emotional spaces

Quick note: This section is going to dive deep into storytelling psychology, so if you're still shaky on the difference between Void and Need, skip down to the 4-step Story Need method for now and come back when you're feeling more confident.

Did you notice how my Story Need isn't an obvious derivation of my Story Void

You might be struggling to draw a straight line from a person craving autonomy (Void) to believing they're capable of forging their own future (Need). That's because every person who has ever lived—in this case, every person who has ever suffered from lacked autonomy—has had different life experiences. So even if two people share the same Void, they may go about filling the Needs it creates in vastly different ways.

Tip #2: In today's example, my Need directly hooked into one of my secondary Voids: self-assurance (confidence). So why wasn't my Story Void self-assurance?

Because my craving to personally plan a satisfying future was greater than my desire to believe in myself. But by using self-assurance as my Story Need, I (as the storyteller) am setting up a natural growth progression I can harness for my next story about young Sue. 

At the start of this story, young Sue already knew that she craved self-government (autonomy). She didn't yet realize that she needed self-assurance before she could achieve autonomy. Through the events of the story, she will recognize that belief in herself is necessary for future happiness. Then, if I wrote a follow-up story for young Sue, I could set up that Story Void as self-assurance. 

Humans are complex, and so is storytelling. And it's okay to take this whole learning process at your own pace, whatever that means for your storytelling decisions.

My example today demonstrates a more complex approach to crafting a character growth arc. So if it left you a little confused, don't stress. It's totally fine to set up a more obvious connection between Void and Need. But once you have a solid understanding of the different ways Void can lead to Need, you can incorporate more depth into your stories and explore harder-hitting themes.

How to pinpoint Story Need

How to pinpoint the hero's Story Need from their Story Void

The simplest way to tell a clear, resonant story is to address a single Void by focusing on the one thing the character must recognize or accept (change) about themself at that specific time in their life to bridge that emotional gap. I call this the Story Need.

Here's how to narrow down your hero's Story Need from their Story Void.

  1. 1
    Identify the time frame you want to set their story in. Be sure it represents a period of personal transformation. For today's example of young Sue, the time frame would be the 4 weeks during during my freshman year in high school when I prepared to perform as a flute soloist at the choir concert. Your time frame might be shorter or longer, depending on the length of your story and how granular your story's focus is.
  2. 2
    Choose the Void that is the most responsible for the hero's unhappiness during this time frame. Look for a high-level lack of something essential to human happiness that is missing and that consistently causes them conflict, frustration, or pain during the story's on-page events. This is their Story Void. My story Void for this example is autonomy.
  3. 3
    Decide what the ending version of your character should look and feel like. How extreme is their transformation? What will they believe about themself at the end of the story that will bring them closer to filling the hole left by their Void? For young Sue in today's example, that's the realization that no matter how much I practice, a perfect performance isn't the key to believing I can succeed. 
  4. 4
    Identify what your character must ultimately recognize or accept about themself—the specific psychological mindset shiftin order to change (complete their transformation). This is your character's Story Need. For my example today, that Story Need is the belief that my own creative aspirations are worth chasing, even if my future career path is uncertain.

Once you can confidently commit to these four steps in your pre-draft planning, you'll be able to set tactical Story Goals that act as guiderails for your plot. (Or, for all you ride-or-die pantsers out there, use this method to troubleshoot your WIP.) 

This is the quickest, most efficient way to set up a story that hits all the right emotional beats in the tightest word count. We'll cover these S.M.A.R.T Goal requirements in detail in our next article but here's a quick preview:

(S) Success is clearly defined +
(M) specific and measurable +
(A) concise and actionable +
(R) actively reaching for +
(T) time-limited or achievable in a time frame 

And I'll show you how to use the Story Void and Need you've already set up for your hero to choose a set of Starting and Ending Story Goals that will drive your hero's growth arc through all 6 stages of the Emotional Transformation Ladder.

Leave a comment

Share your own thoughts on Story Need

Today's article delved into some tough psychological territory, so you may need to come back and re-read it as you work through your own story setup. The full process of narrowing down Void into Story Need might take some time to wrap your brain around, and that's okay. 

If you struggled with following my logic leaps above, revisit one of the books you already know and love. Read it again with an eye for what that hero's Void and Story Need are, and see if you can draw the connecting line between them using the hero's own beliefs and experiences. 

And feel free to discuss this even more in the comments below! I'd love to hear what you're thinking, whether it's an Aha! Moment or questions you're still confused about. 

About the author 

Sue Brown-Moore

Creator. Speaker. Feminist. Human. (She/her)

Known for being a tough editor with a soft touch, Sue Brown-Moore specializes in teaching revision techniques for character-driven fiction and champions progressive, inclusive literature. Sue helps writers rediscover their inner spark and push through vexing story problems using the character-first editing and storystorming techniques she teaches in her online university.

Sue has been featured in writing-focused events and publications, like Publisher’s Weekly and online writing summits, and the stories she collaborates on as both a freelance and acquiring editor have been celebrated with nominations and wins for industry awards like the Vivian, the Golden Heart, and the Lambda.

Learn more about learning from Sue and choose the confidence-building workshop, playbook, or bite-sized training that’s right for you, here on Sue's website.

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